The Brandberg, also called Namibias ‘Picture Mountain’ because of the numerous rock paintings, is a huge granite massif that rises as part of the large edge step on an oval base of 760 km² from the flat part of the rock Namib (~600 m a.s.l.) and towers over it by an average of almost 2000 meters.
Its highest elevation, the Königstein, is with its 2579 meters also the highest peak of Namibia. The massif, which is located in the climate of the semi-desert, profits at the western flank from clouds of fog that come from the Namib and lead to precipitation. The granite subsoil is able to hold the water in crevices and potholes, which is why there are open water points also in the dry season. Thanks to the special climatic conditions, the Brandberg has been inhabited for 30000 years. This is also shown by the approximately 50000 rock paintings, of which the most famous is the “White Lady”, falsely referred to as such.
The Brandberg massif, crossed by numerous valleys and gorges, stretches south of the Ugab, almost 40 kilometres north-west of Uis, the former mining town, which today is considered a sleepy nest even in Namibian relations. Uis offers the traveller little more than a petrol station, two (irregularly) open restaurants and a supermarket with a modest assortment. The rock paintings can be reached from the car park at the end of the D2359 (this is also the access road to the Brandberg White Lady Lodge!). The outward and return journey takes about two hours. The company of a guide is mandatory to prevent vandalism. In order not to have to walk the way in the midday heat, one should arrange the visit for the early morning or the afternoon. The last tour starts at 16h.
The Cologne Institute for Prehistoric Archaeology is in charge of research into the rock paintings. Tilman Lenssen-Erz summarizes their status as follows:
There are about 50.000 pictures in about 1.000 sites; they were mainly painted in the time between 2000 and 4000 years ago. The motives show 70% human figures, 20% animals (almost exclusively large hunting game, which does not occur in the upper part of the mountain) and 10% other. They were painted with earth colors (iron oxide minerals), especially red, black and white and some yellow.
The meaning of the paintings
Painting was an important part of the rites, which also include healing ceremonies and social management. Paintings also played an important role as a complex communication medium with which all cultural knowledge (encyclopaedic knowledge) was remembered and passed on from generation to generation. The images of people often convey the ideals of “community, equality and mobility” which propagate the ideal image of a “person” without rank, status, age and even gender (about 80% of human representations fall into this category). Gender plays a subordinate role, and only 20 percent of the figures have clear gender characteristics. If they can be identified, men are closely associated with material culture and women are associated with community rites and ceremonies. Occasionally, images may be associated with altered states of consciousness, such as shamans in trance and as important components of healing rites. Animals are linked with ecological knowledge and understanding and are partly understood as the ideal of an intact, richly endowed nature. Scenes of hunting, fighting and women at the camp site are not depicted.
Rock paintings are mostly found under rock shelters and in small protected grottos, often also on straight walls. They are usually associated with archaeological finds such as stone artefacts, pottery and ostrich egg artefacts, i.e. the rock paintings were also people’s dwellings. The size of the sites ranges from inconspicuous rocks with only one figure to sites with more than 1000 paintings. Most of the sites are located in the upper Brandberg Mountains at an altitude of over 1800 m above sea level.
Hunter-gatherers who maintained high mobility in small groups (about 20 persons) and rarely stayed longer than 3 weeks at a camp site. They lived in an egalitarian community without leadership and formal political power. Ethnic classifications over more than 2000 years are highly problematic and negate historical and cultural developments. All groups with a long hunter-gatherer past in southern Africa – including especially the San as the oldest population in southern Africa – are closer to prehistoric painters than anyone else.